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  • Jeffrey Friedman




    ABSTRACT: Karl Poppers methodology highlights our scientific ignorance:hence the need to institutionalize open-mindedness through controlled experi-ments that may falsify our fallible theories about the world. In his endorsementof piecemeal social engineering, Popper assumes that the social-democraticstate and its citizens are capable of detecting social problems, and of assessingthe results of policies aimed at solving them, through a process of experimenta-tion analogous to that of natural science. But we are not only scientifically butpolitically ignorant: ignorant of the facts that underpin political debate, whichare brought to our attention by theories that, as Max Weber emphasized, canbe tested only through counterfactual thought experiments. Public-opinion andpolitical-psychology research suggest that human beings are far too unaware, il-logical, and doctrinaire to conduct the rigorous theorizing that would be neces-sary to make piecemeal social engineering work. F.A. Hayek realized that thepublic could not engage, specifically, in piecemeal economic regulation butfailed to draw the conclusion that this was due to a specific type of political ig-norance: ignorance of economic theory.

    The more we learn about the world, and the deeper our learning, themore conscious, specific, and articulate will be our knowledge of whatwe do not know, our knowledge of our ignorance.

    Karl Popper (, )

    Critical Review (), nos. . ISSN -. www.criticalreview.com

    The author thanks Stephen Earl Bennett, Peter J. Boettke, John Bullock, Bruce Caldwell,Bruce Canter, David Gordon, Greg Hill, Kristin Roebuck, Jeremy Shearmur, NancyUpham, and Shterna Wircberg for comments on previous drafts, and the Earhart Founda-tion for financial support.


  • Karl Popper, Max Weber, and F. A. Hayek have in common a relent-less focus on human ignorance. The methodological views of Popper,Weber, and Hayek are grounded in a radical awareness of the igno-rance of human scientists. If extended to the conduct of human citi-zens, this awareness provides a new understanding of the modernstate. An ignorance-based view of the state is fully consistent with amountain of political-science research that only awaits integrationfrom this radically new perspective.


    Whether we are dealing simply with a conceptual game or with a sci-entifically fruitful method of conceptualization and theory-construc-tion can never be decided a priori.

    Max Weber (, )

    At the moment, the role of ignorance in politics is studied primarily byempirical public-opinion researchers, on the one hand, and on theother by rational-ignorance theorists who take their cue from eco-nomics. In principle, the notion of rational ignorance accommodatesthe recognition of ignorance within a broadly economic approach topolitics. But the principle is flawed: political ignorance is not usually ra-tional (or so I will argue). And even if the rational-ignorance hypothe-sis were in principle true, economistic approaches are in practice aliento new (and clear) thinking about ignorance, because they tend to re-duce politics to narrow self-interestthe very thing that is, without anyscholarly assistance, already widely deplored in democratic culturesunder the rubric of corruption.

    Thinking of politicians as corrupt may be satisfyingsomething forwhich I will try to account. But it is not the whole story. A focus onlogrolling, larceny, and lying leaves out the passion, ideology, misunder-standing, and sheer mistakenness that so often characterize politics.Corruption involves deliberately dissembling about ones ends or ones be-havior. The corrupt actor, in short, knows what hes doing. The igno-rant actor does not.

    A focus on corruption is, in its cynical way, wildly hopeful: if politi-cal evils are the result of intentional deceptions, then with enough hon-esty or transparency (or enough district attorneys), things could be setright. This navet is matched by the crackpot tendencies inherent in

    ii Critical Review Vol. 17, Nos. 12

  • the corruption theorists insistence that what seems not to be self-awareand narrowly self-interested behavior always really is. The crackpot in-sists that he knows alland that the people about whom he knows allalso know all. This is not a perspective that is well suited to understand-ing the behavior of fallible human beings, whose hallmark is inadvertenterror.

    Cynicism is not necessarily realism. Cynicism is a worldview, as falli-ble as any other.

    James Buchanan (, ), a pioneer in the economic or public-choice approach to politics, recognizes this. He emphasizes that public-choice theory is not based on universal laws, predictable a priori:

    The economic model of behavior, even if restricted to market activity,should never be taken to provide the be-all and end-all of scientificexplanation. Persons act from many motives, and the economic modelconcentrates attention only on one of the many possible forces behindactions.

    Still, just as in Western economies Homo economicus makes very fre-quent appearances, such that instances of instrumentally irrational oraltruistic behavior do not nullify the value of economic theory, in poli-tics, people frequently display instrumental rationality and self-interest-edness. Therefore, instrumentally irrational voters, altruistic voters, fa-natics, nationalists, political activists, and symbolic political appealsfalsify rational-choice and public-choice theories only if these theo-ries are treated like the laws of physics, which a single contrary eventwould disprove. If we renounce the quest for universal laws of socialscience, we can accept with equanimity the less-than-universal truths ofrational- and public-choice theory in many particular casesas well asaccepting that in many cases the theories do not seem apt.

    The well-known oscillation of rational- and public-choice theoriz-ing between bold but false claims and true but inconsequential or eventautological ones (Green and Shapiro ; Friedman , n)stems from the assumption that science, including social science, is amatter not so much of testing the applicability of a hypothesis in a partic-ular case as it is a matter of using particular cases to test for, or against,universally valid laws. When data that would falsify such a law arefound, the temptation is to redefine the law, often to the point ofemptiness, such that, for instance, all political behavior gets classified as

    Friedman The Epistemology and Politics of Ignorance iii

  • self-interested because even the most pointless self-sacrifice must bepleasing to the one making it (as vs. Olson , n).

    But insisting that either instrumental rationality or self-interestednessmust be a lawlike regularity contradicts the open-mindedness that is thetouchstone of science, according to Popper. Even in natural science, theuniformity of the universe is but an assumption (Popper , ).The uniformity of political motives is a logical possibility (a priori), tobe sure; and to the extent that they are able to screen out cultural varia-tions in the effects that they observe, experimental psychologists, in-cluding behavioral economists, may already have discovered such uni-formities (a posteriori). But they have not discovered either a universallaw of instrumental rationality or a universal law of self-interestedness,and there is no reason to think that they will. Indeed, they have discov-ered many exceptions to both rules, and only a misunderstanding ofthe role of self-interest in human evolution, or a myopic focus on whatsometimes happens in markets, could make such exceptions seemanomalous.

    If rational- and public-choice theorists would treat their theoremsnot as universal predictions but as fallible hypotheses about particularcases, the theorems could be as useful when they turned out to be falseas when they did not. As Poppers friend Hayek (, ) put it,All ofthe statements of theoretical science have the form of if . . . , then . . .statements, and they are interesting mainly insofar as the conditions weinsert in the if clause are different from those that actually exist. Ra-tional-choice avatar Mancur Olson (, ) carefully noted at theend of his Logic of Collective Action that where nonrational or irrationalbehavior is the basis of the phenomena modeled in the book, rational-choice theory does not apply, and it would perhaps be better to turn topsychology or social psychology than to economics for a relevant the-ory. Since we know, for instance, that the millions of voters in largeelectorates in which a single vote virtually never affects the outcomecannot be voting out of (well-informed) instrumental rationality, we canseek out other explanations for their behavior.

    To their credit, rational- and public-choice theories spread partly ascorrectives to positivism in political sciencewhich can degenerateinto mindless data gathering if its practitioners are unaware of the the-ories they are implicitly using to prioritize and understand data. Non-ra-tional-choice empirical research often proceeded (and still proceeds) as iffindings about, say, legislative behavior in a not-especially significant timeand place are valuable because some unidentified force of nature ensures

    iv Critical Review Vol. 17, Nos. 12

  • that the data are typical, and thus cast light on legislative behavior every-where and always. Nave positivism, then, can suffer from the same ten-dency that sometimes mars rational- and public-choice theorizing: treat-ing particularistic hypotheses as if they were universal laws.

    Unlike nave positivists, rational- and public-choice theorists recog-nize that theories are necessary, and that our only real choi